Saturday, March 10, 2012

A 61-year-old Looks Back on Joyce Maynard

I have always admired the title of Joyce Maynard’s famous essay “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life,” but before today, I had never actually read it. Maynard is three years younger than I am, and her article, written during her freshman year at Yale, was the New York Times Magazine cover story on April 23, 1972. As legend has it, the piece drew the attention of the reclusive J. D. Salinger. The two exchanged many letters, and when summer came, Maynard left college (never to return again), moved into Salinger’s Cornish, New Hampshire home, and began a ten-month-long relationship with the 53-year-old author of The Catcher In The Rye.

It is easy to see what appealed to Salinger about the essay. Maynard is very bright and a remarkably observant writer—especially for someone who was only a college freshman. The piece is far more embedded in a particular cultural period in the United States (the late 1960s and early 1970s) than Catcher, but the offbeat sensibility of the author is not unlike that of Holden Caulfield. Maynard writes entertainingly about pot smoking (she didn’t), the Unitarian church, Leave It To Beaver (I was also a fan), her senior year of high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, and the antiwar presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. Maynard had already written several pieces for Seventeen magazine, but “An 18-year-old Looks Back On Life” made her a celebrity. She went on to have children and write many books, including a memoir of her relationship with Salinger, but this article, written in youth, will probably always be her most famous publication.

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